New York — Television, which has become almost all-pervasive in our culture, now tries to penetrate the seemingly impenetrable masks of the Japanese Kabuki theater.
The stylized, ceremonial singing-dancing-miming Kabuki stagecraft, with its emphasis on the way of the warrior and devotion to lords and masters, is seldom seen outside Japan. Only recently the Grand Kabuki toured the United States, scoring a triumphant success among a culturally oriented audience.
Now, PBS tries its hand with a program that might be called ''Kabuki Made Easy for Foreigners'' but which is actually - and perhaps a bit more accurately - titled The Cruelty of Beauty (PBS, Monday, 10-11:15 p.m., check local listings).
Award-winning director Merrill Brockway (''Dance In America''), together with executive producer-narrator Faubion Powers, tries to introduce American audiences to the code of Bushido, which stresses the sword, including such mimed action as beheadings, hara-kiri, infanticide. Much of the masked, ritualistic action is as grotesque as the makeup and the costuming. Viewers need a strong stomach to watch this violence (even if simulated), and a driving cultural as well as intellectual curiosity, fully to appreciate and absorb this 17th-century Japanese art form.
Even with the incessantly lulling explanatory voice-over of Faubion Powers, however, this honest attempt to combine a documentary about the history of Kabuki with a performance of one of its classics - ''The Temple School'' (Terakoya ) - remains as obscure as Kabuki itself, as unnervingly cruel as the cruelty it depicts.
But it is worth watching, especially if it is one's introduction to this revered art form, which seems, after viewing, just a bit more understandable to Western minds.
Just a bit more.